I’ve written quite a number of posts bemoaning the poor writing skills possessed by many who claim the name of “writer”. It’s pretty easy to do that when you’re not pointing the finger directly at one particular person. The last post by George, though, highlighted the problems faced when this issue does indeed become very personal.
It is a peculiarity of The Arts that the notion of “good” and “bad” can get a little lost in the classic defence launched by the less skilful: “Yeah, well, that’s your opinion, buddy.” The Arts being The Arts, and not The Sciences, what hard and fast rules there are can easily be broken in the name of “artistic licence”, which covers a multitude of sins, including not being able to write very well . There is no such thing as scientific licence. Science is right or wrong. Putting Coca-Cola in your gas tank because you want to ring the changes – you being a free spirit and all – is going to find you out. The science is going to screw you up, and your car, and the mechanic who hears of this sorry tale will not have to pussy-foot around the truth using “the onion sandwich thing”, as described by George. No, you will be told you have been an utter dickhead – what the hell were you thinking?
The level of integrity required to give honest feedback to anyone who passionately believes they have a talent they don’t have is mammoth. This is one of the reasons literary agents and publishers usually send out stock responses or pre-printed rejection slips.
Dear (insert name), thank you for your submission; unfortunately your work is not something we could take on at the present time.
What a cop-out. Head-in-the-sand individuals will simply read this as meaning the agent or publisher has a full list and cannot take on any more work, no matter how wonderful. Or that they are heathens who couldn’t recognise true talent it if jumped up and bit their nose off.
The other reason for these rejection slips is the time-constraint. Detailed feedback on the huge volume of submissions received would take all day. (It is a little better when a manuscript has been submitted via an agent, i.e. someone in the profession already believes in you, but that may only amount to a generic rejection letter that’s actually been hand-signed by the rejecter and that includes reference to the title of your submitted work.)
However it’s delivered, rejection of a piece of writing work you have slaved over and are proud of is soul-destroying. Believe me, I know. Unless you’re completely delusional, it can be equally devastating being fed the onion even after all that lovely bread, because we all know the thing that makes a sandwich a sandwich – the core of it, the truth of it – is the filling.
That’s why I can’t do writers’ groups. If I were to sit in the cockpit of an F-16 at an air show, does that make me a fighter pilot? Sadly not.
I did attend one once. It was run by a fellow Manchester author who I’d met at some books gig shortly after my second novel was published. I felt uneasy from the start. Eyes on me. People thinking wow or arsehole, I couldn’t tell. Volunteers read out their efforts from the past week. One or two fairly accomplished, some average, a lot dire. Feedback? Plenty of bread, barely a whiff of onion. Chance of improvement based on that failure to sock it to ’em? Pretty much zero.
It was like a fucked-up AA meeting. A couple successfully in recovery, many in various states of inebriation, and some had even brought in their half-swigged bottles of Smirnoff to show just how far from the wagon they’d fallen.
“Hello, my name’s Roger and I’m a writer.” Uh, no, you’re really not.
I think I was one of the sober ones, but no way was I about to start pointing out those in need of a cold shower and a gallon of black coffee. Yes, I’m a hypocrite; I’ll rant here week in, week out, but I couldn’t tell the ugly truth to your face.
One visit isn’t much to judge by, I admit, and perhaps not at all representative of the writers’ group you may or may not attend. But I expect it’s somewhere in the ballpark. If you’ve ever wanted to be critical, but held back or diplomatised (made-up-word-alert) your response so it basically lost all its teeth, then that’s it, right there.
It’s a shame. There are some excellent writers around, and plenty who could be excellent if only they heard the truth. The best advice is that which slaps you hard round the chops and stops you in your misguided tracks.
“Ow, that hurt … bastard. Oh, I see, you’re saying Coca-Cola isn’t compatible with a combustion engine. Right … thanks.”
No. Far easier (and, let’s face it, infinitely more entertaining) to say nothing and watch them pootle off the forecourt in an ever-billowing cloud of smoke before breaking down a hundred yards up the street.